150 Years After Fort Sumter: Why We're Still Fighting the Civil War

North and South shared the burden of slavery, and after the war, they shared in forgetting about it. But 150 years later, it's time to tell the truth

  • Gregg Segal for TIME

    Confederate Civil War reenactors in Locust Grove, VA

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    What McClellan did not perceive, though, was that the Union and slavery had become irreconcilable. The proposition on which the revolutionaries of 1776 had staked their efforts — the fundamental equality of individuals — was diametrically opposed by the constitution of the new Confederacy. "Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition," explained Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens. In other words, the warring sides had stripped their arguments to first principles, and those principles could no longer be compromised.

    Fogging Memory
    The forgetting began with exhaustion. "From 1865" — the year the war ended — "until the 1880s, there was a paucity of writings about the war that really sold," says Harvard historian John Stauffer. "Americans weren't ready to deal with the reality of the war because of the carnage and the devastation." When an appetite for the story began to return, readers embraced only certain kinds of memories. There was no market for books of war photographs. Ulysses Grant's 1885 memoirs were a best-seller, but the Union general gave almost no attention to the events leading up to Lincoln's call for troops, while his touching account of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox strongly conveyed the idea that it was best to move on. There was an avid audience for essays by military leaders in the magazine The Century, describing their battles in minute detail but paying scant attention to the big picture. This "Battles and Leaders" series spawned an endless literature that, some critics say, treats the terrible conflict as if it were America's original Super Bowl, Yankees vs. Rebs, complete with watercooler analysis of the play calling, fumbles and Hail Marys.

    The first publishing success to really engage the reasons for the war was a strange and rambling book by Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Twenty years earlier, Davis had framed the choice to secede in simple terms: "Will you consent to be robbed of your property" —meaning slaves — or will you "strike bravely for liberty, property, honor and life?" But looking back, he preferred to say that the slavery issue had been trumped up by "political demagogues" in the North "as a means to acquire power."

    Davis' book, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, became a polestar for the Lost Cause school of Civil War history, which takes its name from an 1866 book by Richmond newspaper editor Edward Pollard. Highly selective and deeply misleading, the story of the Lost Cause was immediately popular in the South because it translated the Confederacy's defeat into a moral victory. It pictured antebellum life as an idyll of genteel planters and their happy "servants" whose "instincts," in Davis' words, "rendered them contented with their lot... Never was there happier dependence of labor and capital on each other."

    But then: "The tempter came, like the serpent of Eden, and decoyed them with the majic word of 'freedom.'" Though outgunned and outnumbered, the South fought heroically to defend itself from aggressors whose factories up north were the true slave drivers. And though God-fearing warriors like Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson outgeneraled their foes at every turn, ultimately the federal swarm was too large and too savage to repel.

    The Lost Cause story required a massive case of amnesia. Before the war, Southerners would have scoffed at the idea that the North was overwhelmingly stronger. They believed that King Cotton was the dominant force on earth and that powerful Britain — where roughly 1 in 5 people depended on cotton for a living — would intervene to ensure Confederate victory.

    But people were eager to forget. And so Americans both Southern and Northern flocked to minstrel shows and snapped up happy-slave stories by writers like Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris. White society was not ready to deal with the humanity and needs of freed slaves, and these entertainments assured them that there was no need to. Reconstruction was scorned as a fool's errand, and Jim Crow laws were touted as sensible reforms to restore a harmonious land.

    A Quarrel Forgotten
    Instead of looking back, postwar Presidents stressed the future, adopting the reconciling tone of Grant at Appomattox. William McKinley, assassinated in 1901, was the last Civil War veteran to lead the country. His successor, Theodore Roosevelt, was the living embodiment of reconciliation and moving forward. His father had served the Union cause; his plantation-raised mother had supported the South; his childhood was a master tutorial in leaving certain things unsaid in the pursuit of harmony.

    By the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg, it was nearly impossible to know from the commemoration why the war had happened or who had won. The year was 1913, and the President was Woodrow Wilson, the first Southerner to hold the office since 1850. Wilson had been a historian before entering politics, and his book A History of the American People was tinged with Lost Cause interpretations. He described the Ku Klux Klan as "an empire of the South" created by men "roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation." It was no surprise, then, that his remarks at Gettysburg completely avoided slavery. Instead he chose to talk about "gallant men in blue and gray ... our battles long past, our quarrels forgotten."

    So what was remembered? Two years after Wilson spoke at Gettysburg, partly influenced by Wilson's book, filmmaker D.W. Griffith debuted The Birth of a Nation. It was the first film in history with a six-figure production budget, yet by selling out theaters at the unheard-of price of $2 per ticket — nearly $44 in current dollars — Griffith made a fortune. The movie brought the Lost Cause to cinematic life, with the Klan saving the day in the final reel, rescuing white families from a group of marauding blacks. Then in 1939, a new Lost Cause melodrama made an even bigger impact: David O. Selznick's Gone with the Wind. The story of plucky Scarlett O'Hara and the sad destruction of her "pretty world" of "Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South" is the top-grossing film of all time, adjusted for inflation, according to the website Box Office Mojo.

    Both films begin in an antebellum South where all is peaceful and bright and trace the sad fall from paradise into a hellish postwar world of carpetbagging Northerners and rapacious, incompetent freed slaves. Such powerful cultural images were buttressed by the academic work of leading historians. At Columbia University, William A. Dunning established himself as the leading authority on the postwar South, and he brought up a generation of scholars with the belief that blacks were incapable of equality and that Reconstruction was a disastrous injustice.

    Equally influential was University of Illinois historian James G. Randall, who towered among Lincoln scholars. Horrified by the senseless carnage of World War I, Randall saw it foreshadowed in the trenches and torched fields of the Civil War. The chief villains, in Randall's orthodoxy, were Northern abolitionists with their "reforming zeal."

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